NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Standing in the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Mixon, Texas, on Sept. 3, 1950, 15-year-old Jimmy Draper preached his first sermon. “I had it down to 30 minutes,” Draper said, recalling his first step into the ministry. “When I got up to speak, I delivered it in 12 minutes flat.”
On Jan. 31, 2006 -– 55 years and countless sermons later –- James T. Draper Jr., president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, walks into retirement to expressions of love and to accolades such as “statesman,” “man of integrity,” “man of God,” “mentor and counselor” and “Mr. Southern Baptist.”
“Only a precious few have ever surfaced throughout the history of our convention like Jimmy Draper,” said Dallas-based evangelist Bailey Stone, who was preaching when Draper, the son of a Baptist preacher, surrendered to the ministry.
“Jimmy Draper was a 15-year-old teen when we met,” Stone recounted. “I was a 19-year-old youth evangelist in revival at his dad’s church. Jimmy surrendered to preach on Saturday evening of that revival, and this tied us together as friends for life.”
Surrendering to the ministry meant “surrendering any right I had to be anything else and [I] vowed to devote myself to the work of the Lord,” Draper said. Over the course of 35 years, Draper served eight churches -– six in Texas and one each in Kansas and Oklahoma.
It was at First Baptist in Euless where the Drapers put down their deepest church roots, shepherding a flock and raising a family over the course of 16 years.
Messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention elected Draper president in 1982 and again in 1983. With a pastor’s heart, Draper led a denomination embroiled in controversy.
“Jimmy drew on the same characteristics that had made him successful over the years at building churches,” wrote John Perry in the Draper biography “Walking God’s Path.” “He reached out to allies and opponents alike with letters, phone calls, and invitations to personal meetings and times of fellowship; he worked to build as much consensus as possible without compromising his position on the Bible.”
Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, echoed that sentiment. “Jimmy Draper has consistency, conviction and cooperation that epitomizes him as ‘Mr. Southern Baptist,’” Chapman said. “Jimmy literally has been the pastor of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Speaking at the SBC’s 2005 annual meeting in Nashville, Draper’s lifelong message still resonated.
“I think anybody who knows me knows how much I love Southern Baptists, our churches and our convention,” Draper told the convention. “I feel we have so much room to grow and be used of God in an age when relativism is consuming our culture and the exclusivity of Jesus is being discounted.
“Southern Baptists have got to strike a balance between holding fast to a biblical worldview while engaging the world in nonjudgmental ways. My deepest desire is that for generations to come we are being used by God to reach the people of the world with the Gospel.”
The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention came calling in 1991, looking for a strong servant-leader to take the organization into the next century. Draper firmly and repeatedly said, “No.” He was a pastor, not an executive.
The search committee was persistent -– deviously so, Draper later joked. After much prayer, Draper began to understand that God had a new role for him. “I’ve always said being a pastor is not what I do but who I am,” Draper said on his last Sunday at First Baptist in Euless before moving to Nashville. “How do you stop being what you are? It’s a major adjustment.”
Thankfully, Draper has yet to stop.
A HEART FOR PEOPLE
In the summer of 2000 when Draper listed the 21 lessons he had learned in 50 years of ministry, No. 3 was, “Practice the ministry of encouragement.” This belief, stemming from an oft-repeated reminder from his father to “be kind to everyone because everyone is having a hard time,” has set Draper’s agenda for decades.
Church members, LifeWay employees, family members, friends and acquaintances all over the world have received encouragement from Draper’s commitment to personally written notes and phone calls.
“Dr. Draper’s legacy won’t be counted as numbers on a spreadsheet,” Melissa Mitchell, a LifeWay employee in retail store operations, said. “His legacy will be measured by the number of lives he touched.”
Mitchell recounted how Draper and his wife, Carol Ann, ministered to her family when Katie, her 12-year-old daughter, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004. “In the first hours of trying to cope with such devastating news, we got a call from Dr. Draper, who was out of town,” Mitchell said. “In that moment he wasn’t the CEO of a large corporation. He was a pastor who loves the folks he works with.”
Carol Ann was equally supportive, Mitchell said, recounting how an unexpected visit at the hospital ministered to her. “She embraced me, and it was like a warm blanket from the dryer on a cold winter’s day.”
At Draper’s retirement banquet Jan. 13, the nearly 600 pastors, friends, LifeWay trustees and denominational representatives were asked how many had received a personalized card or letter from Draper over the years. Nearly every hand was lifted.
“When my brother was killed in an accident in 1995, I received a handwritten note and a call from Dr. Draper,” said Tom McCoy, pastor of Thompson Station Church in Thompson Station, Tenn. “That meant the world to me as a grieving young pastor. That’s just how he is. He showed me how it’s done.”
During Draper’s tenure as president, the scope of LifeWay’s ministry broadened to truly global proportions. Milestones and achievements most memorable to Draper include:
— the global impact of True Love Waits, inspiring millions of young people to sexual abstinence.
— the renaming of the Sunday School Board to LifeWay Christian Resources.
— the launch of LifeWay International, which has accounted for nearly 60,000 pastors and church leaders trained in the use of LifeWay products.
— the release of the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
— doubling of the number of LifeWay Christian Stores around the nation to 125 at the end of 2005.
— the effectiveness of LifeWay’s volunteer missions program, which has seen more than 80,000 people led to Christ and 211 churches started around the world.
“The Great Commission is Jesus’ charge to every believer and is also part of LifeWay’s fabric,” Draper said. “I think the mission trips have helped employees see that the work they do here has worldwide implications. They have helped us to see beyond the resources we produce and given us a greater sense of involvement in and responsibility for the Great Commission and sharing the gospel.”
ADVOCATE FOR YOUTH
In 2004, Draper struck a chord with younger leaders across the SBC when he challenged those at the annual meeting to make a way to include younger leaders. Draper then traveled across the country listening to younger leaders and became even more convinced that their passion and enthusiasm for reaching the lost for Christ was needed to reinvigorate a denomination whose foundation is built upon evangelism and missions.
“Dr. Draper’s lasting legacy is likely to be his call to action in the SBC in what has become known as the Younger Leader Initiative,” said Marty Duren, pastor of New Bethany Baptist Church in Buford, Ga., and author of SBC Outpost -– a prominent online weblog (blog).
Dr. Draper “chose to speak out instead of remaining silent,” Duren said. “The result has been many younger leaders giving the convention a real try rather than simply leaving due to frustration. With many of us blogging our thoughts and ideas, his weight behind the legitimacy and importance of the ‘blogosphere’ is truly immeasurable.”
PARTNERS IN MINISTRY
“God has allowed me to live a great journey and gave me Carol Ann to share it with,” Draper said of his wife of nearly 50 years. “Nothing I have done would have been possible without her. She had no idea what she was getting into when she married this preacher boy, but it would not be possible to have fashioned a greater partner for life, and I can’t imagine having made this journey without her.”
Addressing the LifeWay board of trustees in February 2004 when he announced his intention to retire from LifeWay, Draper pertinently stated that, “As a minister, I will never retire. I cannot retire from ordination, the call to preach or the compulsion of the Holy Spirit to work and witness as a Christian minister.
“The surgeon lays down his scalpel, the attorney shuts his law books, the engineer puts down his calculator and the pilot turns in his wings, but the minister does not retire,” he said. “Retirement from that call comes when you wake up and find yourself in the presence of the Lord.”
In his inauguration on Aug. 20, 1991, as the eighth president of the Sunday School Board, a vision was cast -– one which Draper assuredly will follow even in retirement.
“We have so much to offer,” he said. “We ought to be lying awake at night dreaming of things to do.”
Compiled by Russ Rankin, with reporting by Linda Lawson.